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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: October ::
Funeral Elegy/ Shakespeare Wars
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0966  Tuesday, 31 October 2006

From: 		Richard Abrams <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 31 Oct 2006 10:00:37 -0500
Subject: 	Funeral Elegy/ Shakespeare Wars

Ron Rosenbaum plays a strange game in his chapter on W.S.'s Funeral Elegy 
in The Shakespeare Wars.  As someone who bore arms on the losing side in 
that particular struggle, I want to call attention to some inconsistencies 
in his account.

Rosenbaum freely acknowledges that he wrote his book to work through his 
annoyance at Don Foster's presumption in pushing a Shakespearean 
attribution of the Elegy.  As the New York Times reviewer Walter Kirn 
remarks ("Ravished by Shakespeare," 8 Oct 2006, p. 22), Rosenbaum pursues 
his case with the vehemence of a "blood feud."  Taking Rosenbaum at his 
word, Kirn accepts that Rosenbaum "suspected from the start that the 
vacuous, conventional elegy was beneath Shakespeare, and he said so in 
print."  Reading only Rosenbaum's contemptuous chapter on "the Great 
Shakespeare Discovery," one could hardly think otherwise.  Rosenbaum 
cannot heap sufficient scorn on both the Elegy and the scholars who got 
caught up in this Shakespearean "fiasco."  It's surprising, then, to 
consult Rosenbaum's first article on the Elegy (The New York Observer (26 
Feb. 1996, p. 27) and to discover his own former dalliance with a 
Shakespearean attribution for the poem.

I don't know when or where Rosenbaum "predicted that the Elegy was 
destined for 'the dust heap of literary history,'" as he says he did, but 
the claim of his Observer article, on the contrary, is that "the question 
of who was W.S. is one that is going to haunt inquiring minds for 
centuries."  Though Rosenbaum had no trouble spotting the Elegy's defects, 
the "problem," he argued "is that, buried within the [poem] are a couple 
of haunting, suggestive passages-each about 20 lines long-which strike me 
as having Shakespearean resonance."  In a recondite argument later 
dropped, Rosenbaum remarked that the Elegy's "very badness is persuasive 
in a perverse way.  Because many of [the] early sonnets are-let's face 
it-bad Shakespeare.  And this disputed elegy is often bad ... in exactly 
the way some of those early sonnets are bad" (his italics).  Though 
Rosenbaum found the Elegy "frustrating," he also found it "disturbingly 
beautiful and barbaric," offering "glimpses of faded eloquence that could 
be called genuinely Shakespearean."  Quoting some favorite passages, he 
contended that "Whoever wrote these lines . . . was a poet, one capable of 
crafting a beautiful, elegiac farewell, that is also a vow of the kind of 
love and regret that will live beyond the grave.  These lines could turn 
out to be as powerful and popular as any Shakespearean classics for 
recitations at funerals or other painful farewells."  Never at our most 
brash were Foster and I prepared to make such a ringing claim for the 
Elegy's standing shoulder-to-shoulder with "Shakespearean classics."

Rosenbaum's disinfatuation with the Elegy is understandable, even if his 
failure to acknowledge that he had once been deeply impressed by the poem 
is not.  In blasting others for gullibly entertaining a possibility he 
himself once found plausible, however, he is not only unfairly harsh to 
his perceived adversaries but he foregoes a stunning opportunity to bear 
witness, through his own shifting responses, to the perplexities of a text 
that still require elucidation.  John Ford's authorship of the Elegy is 
pretty much universally accepted (I certainly accept it), yet it's unclear 
why the initials W.S. attach themselves to the poem--and there are other 
anomalies, some of which I hope to address in the near future.  Meanwhile, 
as a model for the hard work ahead, I propose lines by the poet that 
Rosenbaum mentions as a favorite before he found his way to Shakespeare. 
Warfare over the Elegy has been bloody at times, but by contestation and 
self-doubt we move forward.  "On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth 
stands, and he that will / Reach her, about must, and about must go; / And 
what the hill's suddenness resists, win so."

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